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Now get to work, mayor

October 09, 2005|Gregory Rodriguez | Gregory Rodriguez is a contributing editor to The Times and Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

EARTHQUAKES AND NBA championships are two forces that reliably unite Angelenos. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has spent his first 100 days in office trying to be a third.

Since being sworn in in July, Villaraigosa has shown up in nearly every corner of Los Angeles. He rode a horse in Chatsworth, attended Mass in Brentwood, shared the owner's box at Dodger Stadium and schmoozed with bus riders. Even before his inauguration, he turned up at Jefferson High School in South L.A. to help ease racial tensions there. By his own estimate, he's traveled 24,000 miles as mayor.

Villaraigosa's personality-driven approach to governance has dramatically raised the visibility of the mayor's office after what many observers considered James K. Hahn's stealth administration. Recognizing that too many residents "don't see themselves as Angelenos," Villaraigosa seeks to give residents in neighborhoods near and far a sense that they're "part of a bigger city" -- and he's the connective tissue. In doing so, the new mayor has put a face on the most faceless of cities.

There is certainly no shortage of political calculation in the mayor's travels across the city and beyond, and he enjoys reading his press clippings. But Villaraigosa may be taking a cue from New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, whose biography he said he read during the mayoral campaign. In the 1930s and early '40s, the "Little Flower" redefined the mayoralty of New York and restored New Yorkers' faith in city government. Often the first to appear at fires, LaGuardia was perceived as ubiquitous.

LaGuardia, the son of Italian and Jewish immigrant parents, was also adept at using his ethnicity to attract support and encourage people to participate in the city's political life, a fact that doesn't seem to have escaped Villaraigosa's attention. The new mayor is proud that a higher percentage of Latinos than Anglos voted in the mayoral election, and unlike so many Mexican American politicians, he didn't use ethnic grievance to get Latinos to the polls. Instead, he evoked his ethnicity to inspire, offering himself as a symbol of Latino aspiration and advancement.

Villaraigosa, who moved his family into the mayoral mansion in Windsor Square, has transcended the pretense of barrio chic, the tendency among many middle-class Mexican American politicians to act as though they are still rough-hewn working-class people. Louisiana populist Huey P. Long learned that ordinary voters were more likely to be moved by one of their own if he had achieved more than they. That insight also inspired Irish American James Michael Curley, who was elected mayor of Boston four times. Curley, like Villaraigosa, enjoyed the finer things of life while maintaining his reputation as the people's mayor.

Villaraigosa doesn't practice Curley's politics of ethnic provincialism, and this is the source of his greatest political strength. Like Henry Cisneros, the mayor of San Antonio in the 1980s, Villaraigosa serves as a bridge between Latinos and non-Latinos, which may explain why many see his electoral victory as representative of a more ethnically and racially harmonious L.A.

But physical ubiquity and political energy alone cannot unite a city that only recently beat back secession attempts. The fundamental weakness -- and strength -- of Villaraigosa's style of charismatic leadership is that it depends on personality, and the emotional bonds the public establishes with this type of leader don't always translate into institutional change. At some point, Villaraigosa's apparent ability to make the city feel good about itself must be accompanied by an ability to govern. Unless buttressed by political deeds, whether filling potholes or easing traffic congestion or improving schools, personality can fast become a reason not to like a politician.

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